On a recent weekday morning, Ofelia Rivas climbed into her old Ford Edge in a Food City parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. She wore a long skirt and a sweatshirt, her graying brown hair tied back in a loose ponytail. Rivas, 62, was headed west toward the Tohono O'odham Nation to deliver food to fellow tribal members who live on the south side of the United States–Mexico border.
For Rivas, making the trip to Mexico isn't such a big deal—or it shouldn't be, she says: "It's all Tohono O'odham land." The reservation is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut and spans both sides of the international border. The tribe has about 34,000 enrolled members, many of whom live in villages and towns on the reservation. More than 2,000 live on the Mexican side. Rivas makes the trip to the south side of the border regularly. But she says that, since 9/11, increased Border Patrol and military presence has made simple movements to see relatives or friends a challenge. To make matters worse, private property owners on the Mexico side closed one of the last remaining traditional border gates specifically for O'odham, in 2016.
Tohono O'odham once used five gates on the reservation, some nothing more than a break in a cattle fence, to drive south. The San Miguel gate on the eastern side of the reservation was once a regularly trafficked route for O'odham to see relatives, sell goods, and travel to medical appointments or to traditional ceremonies. Today, people can still walk across with tribal IDs, but no vehicles can move through. The site feels almost abandoned, with just one U.S. Border Patrol agent watching from a truck most days. Solar panels that once powered lights to illuminate the crossing at night now go largely unused.
When a Mexican property owner first closed the gate in 2016, O'odham people opened it back up. "We tore it down," Rivas told me on a recent visit to the gate. But within about a year, it was welded permanently shut. It was not clear why the owner wanted to stop traffic; rumors circulated that it had something to do with drug cartel influence. Whatever the reason, the new reality disrupted life for O'odham to the south.
For three tiny villages nestled against mountains a few miles away, the San Miguel closure had a lasting impact: They could no longer access their food supply. The handful of families couldn't practically get to the Arizona highways to Sells and Tucson, where they bought groceries. The only option would be to drive through the port of entry in the town of Sasabe, adding time to an already-long journey. In Mexico, the closest grocery store is in Caborca, at least three hours away.
The families all shared one Chevy suburban that sometimes broke down, and the dirt roads to the villages were incredibly rough. The closed gate just added to the challenges. Plus, many of the villagers only spoke O'odham and didn't own passports, which made interactions at the official checkpoint in Sasabe more stressful than the more low-key San Miguel gate had been. (Tribal members are allowed to use tribal IDs at any crossing, but reports have surfaced of some Border Patrol agents hassling people who only have the ID and not passports.)
After 2017, the families made do with fewer grocery runs, hunting rabbits and being more careful with what food they had. But last summer, Rivas got a disturbing phone call. "My brother called me one day from Mexico and said this woman, our friend, just got out of the hospital. He said she was in the hospital the second time for malnutrition," Rivas says. "She's one of the people that live along the border."
Seeing the gravity of the situation, Rivas realized that someone had to help people get the food they needed. She kicked into gear, collecting donations to bring food to the villages, known as Wo'osan, Kuwith Wahia, and Kom Wahia. She and her brother received $10 here, $30 there, adding up to about $250 each month to buy food in Tucson and drive it south.
The deliveries have helped the communities survive, but Rivas says it's not a permanent solution. She's considered encouraging the families to grow their own food, but that has its own complications. "It's very hard because they don't have ownership of the land," and the owner won't let them develop it, Rivas says. So for now, Rivas and her brother continue to make deliveries every month.
The welding of the San Miguel gate—Woo'san in O'odham—was just the latest in a series of closures along the reservation's 62-mile international boundary. Farther west on the reservation, the gate nearest to Rivas' hometown that was once used for travel to traditional ceremonies was the first to be closed, she says: "It's all fenced up and looks like it never had a gate." The gate near her father's home stopped being used around the time villagers in Mexico reportedly left because of drug cartel activity. At one traditional crossing, tribal members now have to push a button to request that Border Patrol open the gate for them. At another, the U.S. government has constructed Normandy-style fencing in front of the original cattle fence, to block vehicles. In 2016, the San Miguel gate was the next stitch in the steady sewing shut of a border dividing a nation of people who never wanted it in the first place.
Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, a Tohono O'odham member who lives in Tucson and works as a teacher on the reservation, says that, when the San Miguel gate was welded shut, "it affected us as a larger community. The traditional routes have been a big part of our community for hundreds and hundreds of years. That was a very normal part of our history to be making the journey to the ocean or traditional villages in what is now Mexico." Cázares-Kelly also says O'odham Catholics, who travel to Mexico for religious events, now face a longer journey to go through Lukeville, Sasabe, or Nogales. Whether it's a private property owner closing a gate, or Border Patrol increasing security, "It's all part of that same boxing in," Cázares-Kelly says. "When I was a kid, I felt like I had the freedom to go back and forth. But now, there's a worry about documentation. I know people who tried to use tribal IDs and were stopped from crossing."
In recent years, the tribe's relationship to the U.S. Border Patrol has been mixed. Though Rivas and many other O'odham report tensions at checkpoints, the tribe's chairman and vice chairman describe a generally positive relationship. "[The Nation] has worked closely for decades with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and other agencies to secure the U.S. homeland," read a government statement in 2017. According to the Tohono O'odham Department of Public Safety, inter-government cooperation deterred illegal crossing, leading migrant apprehensions on the reservation to drop by 84 percent between 2003 and 2016.
While the tribal officials appear optimistic about relations with U.S. agencies, they staunchly oppose a border wall. "A wall built on the border, we believe is not the answer to securing America," Vice Chairman Verlon Jose says in a video on the government's website. "We cross the border daily ... it would be a major, major impact to our members."
Though a private property owner, not the U.S. government, closed the San Miguel gate, "that private fence only works because Border Patrol fenced everything around it," says Ohio State University geography professor Kenneth Madsen, who studies border fencing. "Border Patrol has blocked everything else except these 15 feet, so all the private land owner had to do was build a fence on 15 feet of his property." The welded gate was also built to blend in with the border fencing around it, in a rusty metal bollard style. "He painted the sign in Border Patrol green to make it look as official as possible," Madsen notes.
As a kid in the 1960s, Rivas remembers walking through washes across the border to visit family on a regular basis. Today, when she drives through checkpoints in and around the reservation, she doesn't speak English to the authorities. She considers it a form of protest. On a recent drive through a checkpoint, a Border Patrol agent asked if she was a U.S. citizen. She responded, as she usually does, exclusively in O'odham. The agent repeated the question several times before just waving her through. As soon as she was out of view, Rivas smiled. "I'm not a U.S. citizen," she says. "This is O'odham land as far as the eye can see. ... These mountains only know O'odham words."